Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Egyptian Media Facing Sea Change

By Ashraf Khalil

Egypt’s state-run media is undergoing a seismic shift after initially coming out strongly in support of the former regime in the first throes of the revolution.

IWPR talks to Egyptian journalist Ashraf Khalil about the future of the official press and the emerging, new voices in the media market. 

What was the role played by the state-run media before and during the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak?

State media was very powerful and remained so well into the revolution. It was very effective in convincing a lot of people that the protests were a conspiracy to bring down the proud Egyptian people. When journalists started being attacked in the middle of the protests, I too was amongst a group of reporters targeted by a mob. We were rescued by a soldier who took us to a walled courtyard for our own protection - there were already a couple of Egyptian journalists hiding there, terrified. They worked for a local newspaper and had been chased down by the mob. I put responsibility for that 100 per cent on the state media; they were pushing the line of a conspiracy from day one.

But it was fascinating to watch the system start crumbling. In a 48-hour time span, around February 7, it started to change. There wasn’t an endorsement of the revolution but finally an acknowledgment of what was happening; that there was no shadowy foreign hand guiding the protesters; that it was a large and demographically diverse movement. I was watching television and was shocked to see that on state TV they had brought two protesters into the studio. The protesters were given a free rein to complain about police brutality and the regime, and the interviewer appeared to be earnestly struggling to understand what was happening.

I think some of the media simply didn’t let themselves see the truth of what was happening and it took a while for them to able to admit the changes to themselves.

How has the state-run media reacted to the new post-Mubarak reality?

The current situation of the state-run media is hilarious. They are back-pedalling furiously, falling over themselves to be on the side of the revolution. The state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, for example, keeps on featuring the phrase “the corrupt ones” and their line is that everything was the fault of the corrupt ones, and that the press is cheering their fall along with everyone else. The reality is that they were complicit and they know it. It’s similar to the situation with the police. Some of the riot cops who attacked the crowds in Tahrir Square are not worthy of hatred, they were also victims of a brutal system, and many of the demonstrators feel this way too. They reserve their hatred for their bosses. For the lower-level people at al-Ahram, it was this job or unemployment. But everyone at a managerial level in any state-run newspaper or television station should be unemployable until they are rehabilitated or work their way up through the ranks again. Their job was to enforce the control of the regime; they weren’t journalists.

There are still a lot of people who only read Al-Ahram. All my relatives read it. It’s partly force of habit amongst an older generation. But there is some cross over. Wael Ghonim – an internet activist and Google employee, one of the pivotal players in the revolution - was released after 12 days in prison and straight away gave an interview to Dream TV, a privately-owned channel although it does have some regime connections. It was an incredibly raw, sincere, endearing interview. The same people who only read Al-Ahram also watch Dream and saw this moving interview. Independent TV channels reach a wider audience than independent newspapers, and were more relevant during the revolution, widening the exposure of what was happening.

What changes need to be made to allow a strong and independent media to emerge in Egypt?

There will need to be a whole range of reforms in the media. Just like the revolution was youth-driven, so I hope we will see the lower and younger ranks in the media rise up. I don’t think constitutional or legal changes will be necessary, with the exception maybe of the ministry of information. There will need to be massive reforms there, if it even still continues to exist. People are already asking if we need such a ministry; it seems an antiquated model left behind by an authoritarian government.

The state-owned media will now have to stand on its own and compete. Some newspapers never made a profit so will now have to close if they don’t improve their performance. The state media is going to be judged on how well they report, not how well they reflect the view of the regime.

Are new voices now being heard in the Egyptian media and is there a new freedom of expression?

It’s not so much new voices that are emerging but previously blackballed old voices that are coming back, people who before the revolution were borderline unemployable. There were lots of ways to limit voices in the independent media. One example is Ibrahim Eissa, who was the editor of a maverick, independent newspaper, Al-Dustour. In October last year, just before the elections, his television show was cancelled and his newspaper bought out by new management who promptly fired him. Now he’s back.

There is a lot of discussion over the labour unrest and the strikes that are currently taking place across Egypt. Workers are demanding better treatment and pay, and some parts of the media are supporting them, while others are saying this is the last thing Egypt’s economy needs right now. People are divided over this and the media is reflecting this division. There is also debate over the new cabinet, and over the emerging political scene, with new parties being formed.

If there’s any element of tip-toeing around in public discourse it’s regarding the army. There is a reluctance to ask some questions of them, for instance, how much money they have acquired over the last 30 years, the closeness of their links to the United States and Israel. I am not sure if it is fear stopping these questions being asked or a sense that it would be in bad taste to ask them just yet. There has been some criticism of the army, but the message is more, “Great job, but don’t get too comfortable.” The media is asking why there aren’t more civilian voices involved and are saying they will hold the army to their promises of handing over power. But this isn’t the focus of the discussion right now; there is still euphoria. 

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